Opinion

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Closing Range

Scorched Earth

Taking a look at the Swan Forest Initiative in Lake County

Well, with the midnight moon red and the mountains mere shadows in the murk, I can’t help but think there has to be a better way to manage our forests — and I’m not alone.

In the past few weeks, Western Montana newspapers including the mighty Flathead Beacon have featured letters discussing the so-called Swan Forest Initiative in Lake County. Most letters oppose the initiative — and given at least two are from local professional environmentalists, it’s not hard to guess what the initiative is all about.

So, let’s look at the basics, which you can find at this web link: http://swanforestinitiative.org/.

Apparently the brainchild of Lake County Conservation District (LCCD) chairman Jim Simpson, the initiative concerns 60,000 acres of Flathead National Forest in Lake County, which LCCD would like to see managed as a trust on behalf of Lake County by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).

These 60,000 acres are a relatively small part of roughly 173,000 Flathead National Forest acres that form a lazy horseshoe of lands surrounding the Swan River State Forest, running from Crane Mountain to the Missoula County line about five miles north of Condon. Most is already restricted or prohibited lands like wilderness, proposed wilderness, the Swan Front, unsuitable lands, and grizzly bear core – places where, at the least, serial litigation will make sure no tree is ever cut.

Initiative proponents (part, but not all of LCCD’s board of directors) would like to see the “suitable” lands managed in trust, with any profits plowed into “conservation projects” around the county. Management control would reverting to the Feds after 100 years, about the time it would take the forest on these lands to “mature.” I suppose if successful, the arrangement could be renewed.

How much revenue and for what?

In theory, National Forest counties get funding support through three main programs: One is the 25 percent timber sale share upon harvest, payment in lieu of taxes [known as PILT], and most recently the Secure Rural Schools and County Self-Determination Act. But, as proponents point out, these funds “to operate schools and maintain county roads from these sources is declining and is at risk of being eliminated.”

Yep. There’s hardly any harvest from which to share 25 percent, Secure Schools could vanish with every Congress, and PILT, the only “sure” funding, actually amounts to about a dollar per acre per year, which is, quite frankly, pathetic.

Under the initiative, the forest could produce net revenues of just under $500,000 per year up to $1.6 million, or on a per-acre basis in the middle, of $20 per acre — not much, but better than near-nothing. The annual net cash after expenses (LCCD estimates $300,000 a year) would be applied to septic system upgrades, to upgrade irrigation, reducing use while increasing yields and dust control on Lake County roads.

But there’s another plus. Initiative supporters have noticed something important – first, that the Forest Service’s ability to actively and effectively manage forests has “significantly deteriorated over the last 30 to 40 years.” The result is forests, even in the Swan, in “significant forest health decline. The same decline that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres of Montana forests dying on the Helena, Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and Lewis and Clark National Forests” — forests that are now in flames with millions going up in smoke.

Want another plus? Well, one real popular trend in forestry has been to “rationalize” or “block up” lands under single management rather than muck around with icky checkerboards. Where has this happened recently? You guessed right – the initiative lands bracket the Swan River State Forest, freshly expanded thanks to the addition and integration (at a crazy-stupid price) of former Plum Creek lands.

Don’t forget, Greens supported the first expansion of the Swan state forest. The initiative is just the next logical step: Join state working forest, formerly private working forest, and federal working forest into a larger, fully functioning working forest? Wow, what a concept!

Thing is, the Swan Initiative will require explicit approval from Congress — and Congress is where good ideas go to die on a field of scorched earth.

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